Grand Forks photographer Russ Hons has an eye for wildlife, and these images provide the proof. (Check out more photos from Russ Hons here.)
Peregrine falcons have been showing up in Grand Forks since 2005. This is one of the falcons that is nesting in the water tower on the campus of the University of North Dakota. It could be Marv, the patriarch of Grand Forks’ peregrine clan the past couple of years. Named after Marv Bossart, a Fargo TV personality who died in 2013, Marv was hatched that same year in Fargo and showed up in Grand Forks to mate the next spring. Its identity was confirmed by Tim Driscoll, Grand Forks raptor expert and licensed bander, who banded and named Marv in 2013. Photographer Michael Bogert captured these nice images recently on the UND campus.
A good indicator that spring has arrived is the appearance of animals that have either gone south in the fall or the emergency of those that have made themselves scarce during the long winter. Canada geese are among the former and moose the latter. Bald eagles, however, can be counted in both groups. Some winter along the Red River of the North, while others escape the cold temperatures for several months of the year. Here’s some of what photographer Michael Bogert has seen since spring has officially arrived.
Grand Forks photographer Russ Hons has an eye for wildlife, so it’s no surprise that he recently visited the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley and the Como Park Zoo and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul. The Minnesota Zoo, which opened in May 1978, is a state agency that has been a destination home to more than 4,700 animals — many endangered — in award-winning exhibits since its opening. The Como Park Zoo and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory are located in Como Park and are owned by the city of St. Paul and are a division of St. Paul Parks and Recreation. It was established in 1897 with the donation of three deer, and today has 25 animal habitats featuring orangutans, gorillas, giraffes, lions, tigers and more. Check out more photos from Russ Hons here.
Since the 1930s, beginning with our great-grandfather’s clan, family members have heard wolves howl, grouse drum, deer blow, coyotes yip and bark, owls hoot, frogs croak.
Then, there are the frequent, mysterious and sometimes scary unidentified critters who scream or moan or bray worse than almost all of our impressive presidential candidates.
Most of the time we hear the sounds at night, and we always ask in a frightened tone: “What the hell was that?”
The question usually comes as we sit around the fire pit with eyes wide, goosebumps crawling and whatever hair we have left standing stiff on neck or arm. Sometimes, when our flashlights pierce the black woods, we might catch a glimpse of a shape. Typically, we just hear the beasts, go to bed and then look for evidence of their presence the next morning. You see, we just need to know what shares the woods.
Critters deposit proof they exist all over the woods, you know. We all enjoy attempting to decipher the size, sex, weight and other characteristics of animals while examining tracks and scat or other markings.
These days, however, the evidence we find on the ground takes a distant second place when compared with an animal’s image caught on camera. In fact, our trail camera images are the next best thing to actually witnessing the ultimate ― usually explosive ― close encounter.
Humans have tried to capture wildlife on camera for more than 100 years. I know a few people who’ve gotten really good at shooting critters with a camera, but photographers such as Steve Foss in Ely, Minn., are the rare specimens who are patient, lucky and woods wise ― qualities most humans in 2016 don’t possess, especially those who live in New York or California or any community with a population of more than 368 souls. That’s just the way it is, right?
These days, technology, for better or usually worse, allows humans to capture wildlife with a digital camera. And get this — some trail cameras (aka game cameras) contain Wi-Fi capability that can send photos directly to your cell phone. Wow. Isn’t high tech grand?
I can vouch that trail cam technology has advanced quite a bit the last dozen or so years. For example, my first two trail cams, if memory serves, required at least 62 D-cell batteries to operate; it captured photos on black-and-white film ― film ― remember film? The crappy cameras were a hassle to use, ate those 62 D-cell batteries daily for breakfast and generally were nothing but frustration, which is why I burned them both in the fire pit.
But things change, thank God.
A month or so ago, my brother and I were discussing where to place his new trail camera, a camouflaged box of digital wonder. Its 40 passive infra-red LEDS gives the thing an insect kind of quality. Its sensor won’t spook critters at night at a distance of 50 feet. And, amazingly, it detects movement so subtle even snowflakes can’t hide from the lens.
But wait, there’s more! The camera contains a time-lapse mode, will shoot video at 30 fps and a ton of other stuff we haven’t figured out because the contraption requires someone younger than 16 to program the thing.
We retrieved the SD card a week ago. As you can see by the images (some are fuzzy, others are crisp), man does the camera work. Brett paid $80 for it in a half-price deal. Nephew Cale has a similar trail cam. (His captured an image of a lynx last winter that will knock your socks off. Maybe he’ll let me publish it some day.)
I intend to get one soon. We’re already discussing where to place them, a pretty fun puzzle in itself.
Who knows what animals, birds and other creatures we will capture?
As everybody knows, there have been quite a few Sasquatch sightings in the area south of Effie. I’m not making this up. Perhaps … who knows … we can catch one on a trail cam. Don’t snicker. Anything is possible with high technology. The truth is out there.
U.S. Highway 85 is North Dakota’s deadliest highway. If you’re not familiar with it, it is the road that runs north and south along the western edge of the state, from our border with Canada to our border with South Dakota, through the North Dakota Bad Lands, some of the state’s most scenic and fragile landscapes.
Even though it passes through what has historically been the most remote area of our state, it has the most fatal accidents, the most injury accidents and the most property damage accidents of any highway in North Dakota.
The reason? It’s now the main drag through the Bakken oil boom country, and it now has some of the highest traffic volumes in the state.
Really big trucks.
Lots of them.
And drivers who are often young and reckless, sometimes really, really drunk, always in a hurry and don’t have a clue about driving in our weather conditions.
More often than not, when you read in the paper of a traffic fatality in Bakken Country, you’ll learn that the accident was caused by a relative newcomer to the state. Problem is, also more often than not, the victim in a fatal accident is an innocent North Dakotan who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when somebody ran a stop sign, or passed a truck when they shouldn’t have, or was driving one of those huge oil tanker trucks in a careless manner.
State officials recognized the problem a few years ago and began the process of upgrading the highway to make it safer. A project to make the highway four lanes wide is under way between the Bakken’s two hot spots, Williston and Watford City. By the end of 2016, drivers should be using all four lanes of the new highway.
Next up is the 60-mile stretch through the Bad Lands, from Watford City down to Interstate 94 at Belfield. The DOT is completing an environmental impact statement on that project now, mostly necessitated by the fact that the highway passes through the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri National Grasslands and calls for upgrading or replacing the historic Long X Bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River.
All of those things have caught the attention of the public, including conservation organizations, wildlife groups and the state’s Game and Fish Department, because Highway 85 is not just the deadliest highway in the state for humans — it is the deadliest for wildlife as well.
Game and Fish has long been concerned about the number of animal-vehicle collisions on the highway. Rubber tire disease claimed so many bighorn sheep a couple of years ago that Game and Fish actually had to pick up and move the remainder of what used to be a herd of 43 out of the area along Highway 85 to get them out of danger.
Now, the proposed bigger, wider and faster highway through some of the state’s most important big game habitat will mean increased distances for wildlife to cross, greater traffic volumes and potentially higher speeds, and the Game and Fish Department is paying close attention to the design of the new road.
Everybody recognizes the safety need. Separating the lanes of northbound and southbound traffic should reduce accidents and fatalities. But it is going to be a lot harder for the critters to make safe passages across the four lanes, increasing the likelihood of animal-vehicle collisions. As a result, North Dakota will get its first-ever “wildlife crossings” as part of the project.
Construction of the first one is already under way as part of the first phase of the project. It’s just south of the Missouri River bridge at Williston, where the highway passes through the Lewis and Clark Wildlife Management Area.
According to Bruce Kreft, a department wildlife biologist who’s been working with the DOT on design of the crossing, it will be a 15-foot high, 40-foot wide underpass, with appropriate fencing along the highway to encourage wildlife to cross under the highway instead of over it.
It’s essentially a moose crossing, recognizing the growing number of moose (mooses? meese?) in the Williston area. Kreft says the department is seeing a number of moose fatalities in the area, and moose are more likely to use an underpass than an overpass, hence the design.
Game and Fish Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams says his department is mostly concerned about keeping people safe. “These are good-sized critters,” he says, and we need to do everything possible to keep them off the highway. Williams said similar crossings in Montana have proven successful.
Kreft, who’s been to Montana with North Dakota DOT officials to look at crossings similar to the one being built now, says deer also will use the underpasses, and there’s a healthy deer population in that area of the state as well.
For the second phase of the widening project, through the Bad Lands, Game and Fish is proposing five additional crossings. Topography and deference to the species of critters likely to use the crossings dictate whether they will be overpasses or underpasses. For example, a crossing proposed for just north of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park would be an overpass, basically a bridge over the highway, where bighorn sheep, deer and elk would make their way across safely.
“Deer will go through a lot of things, but bighorns like an open space for crossing,” Kreft says. “They will use the bridge.”
Kreft said other proposed crossings include one located under the bridge where the road crosses the Little Missouri River, another at a scenic overlook just south of the national park, “where the wildlife guys say they have a lot of mortality,” and on the north and south sides of state Highway 200, which intersects with Highway 85 about halfway between Watford City and Belfield.
The department has good pronghorn antelope migration data for the areas near Highway 200, and studies in other states have shown pronghorns will only use overpasses, so that’s what will be built there. Kreft says the department also has good bighorn sheep migration data, and the migration of both antelope and bighorns is necessary to maintain the population.
Habitat fragmentation caused by the oil boom already is happening on a large scale in western North Dakota — witness the severe decline in sage grouse in the southwest corner of the state, for example — and our wildlife biologists hope these crossing will help facilitate seasonal movement of animal herds and stave off further declines in our wildlife population.
The biggest issue with the crossings is likely to be money. The crossings are expensive, maybe costing as much as a couple of million dollars each. We haven’t seen any cost estimates yet. And maintenance is expensive as well.
The department is likely going to need some support to convince DOT officials — and the governor, for whom they work — that the expense is justified. Letters in support of the crossings to the governor from concerned citizens, and especially from local wildlife clubs, would not be out of order. And the letters should come soon. Decisions on the final highway design will be made as soon as the EIS is complete, as early as mid-2016.
There also will be public meetings when the EIS is complete, and that’s a good time to show up and express your support. Keep your eyes open this coming spring for meetings in your area. Conservation groups have encouraged the DOT to hold public meetings across the state, not just in the project area, because the Bad Lands are also a high visitation area for outdoor recreation — hikers, cyclists, photographers, birders and hunters.
And conservation groups also are encouraging the DOT to take steps to preserve the integrity of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
For example, Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, has suggested lowering the speed limit for the seven-mile stretch of the road that crosses through the park and putting up signage well in advance of the entrance to the park advising drivers that they are entering a very sensitive environmental area — National Parks provide refuge to a lot of wildlife which may stray near the road. Both reasonable suggestions, I think.
In her statement to the DOT at a public hearing last year, Swenson said, “As this proposed study for expansion of Highway 85 moves forward, Badlands Conservation Alliance insists that the N.D. DOT … move forward ONLY with the aim of a state-of-the-art design that recognizes the need for flexibility, creativity, and use of the very best engineering and construction technology. This is the only way to appropriately address transportation safety needs while preserving the integrity, nay the sanctity, of the Little Missouri River Valley.”
The sanctity of the Little Missouri River Valley. An important consideration, indeed.